Choose Your Own Autobiography: You read that right. Finally publishing his version of the one book every remotely famous person gets to write, Neil Patrick Harris is clearly ready for people to go “Huh? Choose Your Own What? Why?”
But on the very first page of his Choose Your Own Autobiography, the actor/TV star says he “couldn’t think of a better way” to dramatize his life events than this cheeky half-memoir that mixes in (presumably) true stories with all the gloriously pulpy prose and branching paths of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Yes, really.
Believe it or not, the whole thing works, not just as a joke, but as a condensation of everything one could conceivably want from Neil Patrick Harris in book form. Those outside the Cult of Neil have to at least admire the man for going his own way: How many other celebrities would dare to write a book that places their lives at the mercy of the reader?
For those unfamiliar with the Choose Your Own Adventure series, it’s an old-school “game book” format that spawned such grade-school library gems as Secret of the Pyramids, Forest of Fear and Prisoner of the Ant People (seriously). These books memorably parsed out second-person adventure stories in small bursts, occasionally giving the reader choices and directing them to different pages to find out what happens next.
Harris’s book apes the same schtick for comic effect, because this time there’s no doubt who “you” are supposed to be. For example, early on we read a description of Harris’s life growing up in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and at the end get the choice to either experience a happy childhood on page 8, or a (fictitious) “miserable childhood that later in life you can claim to heroically overcome” on page 5.
This approach perfectly skewers both the original Adventures (which were often laughably subjective) as well as so many biographies where we just want to skip to the interesting stuff. Here, we get to decide which parts interest us, from Harris’s days as a child star all the way to his adult comeback with Harold and Kumar, How I Met Your Mother and his Tony-winning performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway.
As a result, Harris’s Autobiography ends up being clever, heartfelt, smutty, hilarious, cheesier than a 10-ton block of gouda and maybe even a sort of profound meta-statement on the uselessness of any attempt at writing memoir at all. It also helps that the target audience of fans old enough to remember Doogie Howser probably thinks of CYOA books with the same nostalgic fondness. Since Harris not only appears in the recently released Gone Girl but has also been announced as next year’s host for the Oscars, the timing couldn’t be better.
Miraculously, the gimmick of this Autobiography never gets old. Harris crams so much stuff in here that it functions as an activity book for his unofficial fan club as well as the story of his life. Aside from some amusing “fake” chapters, we also get comedy bits, illustrations, photos, secret messages, tweets, songs, recipes and even a “cryptic crossword puzzle.” And just like the originals, this Choose Your Own Adventure has several “bad endings” that lead to a completely unexpected death scene, in which Neil suddenly dissolves in acid or gets sucked into quicksand with no warning whatsoever. Intermittent crass humor aside, Harris respects his reader’s intelligence enough that he doesn’t have to over-explain things each time he deviates from reality or shows up “in person” to teach us a magic trick.
You (the real you, not the Neil you) won’t mind when the jokes fall flat because the entire experience feels so sunny and goodhearted, like the print version of a cocktail party or a variety show, complete with celebrity “cameos” from Harris’s friends like Amy Sedaris, Nathan Fillion, Sarah Silverman and Whoopi Goldberg. Bits range from cloying to cute to inspired; one highlight is an interview with “Totally Straight Guy Magazine” that works as a pastiche of all the awkward “Wait, you’re gay?” conversations Harris must have had to endure since coming out in 2006.
Look: As far as confessional “tell-alls” go, you won’t find anything earth-shattering here. Many of the events that would account for dozens of pages in a “normal” memoir get smooshed down to two or three and buried under jokes that sound a lot like awards show-style quips. (We might blame this on the book’s coauthor, comedy writer David Javerbaum.) The real revelations feel technical (how an awards show is planned, how surrogate pregnancy works, how to get in costume as Hedwig, etc.) rather than emotional and are undercut a little by all the flipping back and forth. But in several cases, the shortness of sections actually increases their poignancy, and the vignette where “you” meet your future partner David Burtka while the “real” David scribbles notes in the margins is more romantic than the entirety of J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s overwrought S.
Even when he admits to meeting up with strangers from AOL chatrooms for sex or getting high in the jungle treetops of Costa Rica, a sense of innocence persists about Neil. If we learn anything by the time we reach one of our many ENDs, it’s that his impish screen persona, alternately smarmy and saccharine, naughty and nice, happens to be totally in earnest.
And if you don’t like any of that, you also get the chance to watch him die several horrible imagined deaths. That’s above and beyond, don’t you think?
W.A. Hughes is a blogger and contributor to various pop culture-themed websites. To read more of his work, see his previous Paste reviews here.